Contemporary dancer Bobbi Jene Smith’s artistic mantra was cultivated during her ten-year stint at the world famous Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, where she performed throughout her 20s under company director Ohad Naharin. Naharin founded Gaga: a movement language and pedagogy based on a dancer’s conversion of raw emotion toward passionately improvised movement. It’s ironic, then, that director Elvira Lind’s Bobbi Jene — a documentary profiling Smith, a Gaga disciple — is often cursory and emotionally controlled.
A case in point is Smith’s resignation from Batsheva to move back to the United States. Smith breaks the news to Naharin over lunch at a posh Israeli restaurant. Their dialogue, which one would expect to be intimate and free-flowing, given their longstanding artistic and personal relationship, is emotionally flat and strictly informational. Smith explains her need for independence and a deeper connection to her surroundings, which she believes she will find in the States. But Smith’s position is hardly elaborated or challenged beyond these talking points, and as Naharin accepts Smith’s resignation with little resistance, apparently so should the audience.
Similarly, Smith’s role in Batsheva or life in Israel over ten years is only marginally conveyed through sparse footage. For an artistic journey piece, this shortcoming is particularly glaring, as the question remains: what, on an artistic level, does Smith believe she will obtain as a solo performer as opposed to as a dancer at Batsheva? And why is she so compelled to uproot to another country after a presumably fruitful decade in Israel?
Rather than explore these questions, Lind is more eager to convey a melodramatic story of Smith and her beautiful, gentle and charismatic boyfriend Or Schraiber, who is also a dancer at Batsheva. Lind dedicates an ample amount of footage to playfully tender moments between Smith and Schraiber, which is heart warming to watch for a while: the two exchange in witty banter and genuinely affectionate pillow talk; family dinners full of laughter; and scenic walks along the majestic Tel Aviv coastline.
But later in the film, when their long-distance relationship hits the fritz, the couple merely outlines for one another their reasons for being apart. Smith explains yet again her desire to be in the US, and Schraiber gently shares his unwillingness to leave Betsheva, or his homeland. The discussions, more essayistic than emotionally charged, convey a polite guardedness which comes across as too scripted for two passionate lovers on the brink of separation.
Even more problematic is Bobbi Jene’s lack of insight into whether the unraveling relationship disrupts Smith’s ability to work long, unpredictable hours, or saps her creative energy. These issues, so common to struggling young artists trying to make ends meet with little time to spare, would have been ripe ground for candid interview segments, or footage of Smith’s artistic frustration. But because Bobbi Jene fails go deeper into these connections between everyday life and art, Smith always feels at a distance despite continual footage tracking her travels throughout the film.
At other times, Smith’s talk about struggle doesn’t translate into the film’s depiction of her life. Despite a job at Stanford and studio space, Smith immediately expresses concern about her future prospects and connections . This would have perhaps been a nice starting point to debunk stereotypes that success in the art world is easily obtainable; a 24/7 creative party with a paycheck on the side.
Disappointingly, however, Bobbi Jene treats these legitimate worries as evanescent roadblocks. One moment, Smith is walking the streets of beautiful San Fransisco with a friend, discussing her lack of contacts. Minutes later in the film, Smith is sipping wine with Laura Dern; soon after, she is performing her solo act to a captivated, adoringly uncritical audience. For most starving artists, these effortless if not inconsistent transitions may be hard to relate to.
Smith’s seemingly quick success does have some positive impact. Seeing an emboldened woman artistically express her sexuality and earn effusive praise for it is not only inspirational, but vitally important. Watching Smith own these risque artistic choices is edifying — particularly in a context where brazen, unapologetic female voices are still a gross minority in mainstream cinema.
At the same time, however, Smith’s accomplishments are presented without her having overcome any rattling criticism. At one point, Smith decides to showcase her naked, erotic dance show in Jerusalem. Schraiber’s family warns Smith that she will be performing in a deeply conservative city where she may face backlash. Bobbi Jene never reveals if these risks, among others, weigh heavily on either Smith or the important people in her lives. Instead, almost universally unflinching support awaits, which is simply not a reality for most starving artists in this world.
Not surprisingly, Bobbi Jene is at its best when it far too infrequently shows Smith working on her craft. One need only observe every sinewy muscle on Smith’s body spasm in intense effort while she dances to conclude that she is consumed by accomplishing personal fulfillment through breathless, if not painful, execution of her craft.
In her spare time, Smith lifts cinder blocks, hauls 50 pounds of sand on her shoulder for a walk, and pushes up violently against walls to develop a deeper physical understanding on the meaning of “effort”, and how it may apply to her dance routine. After she’s done with a practice, Smith discusses from her small, austerely furnished apartment space that while her grueling work translates to praise among performing arts lovers, the mainstream success required for artistically liberating sums of money is not possible in her field.
These scenes provide refreshing moments of openness, where Smith reveals that her steely resolve to perform in a niche art intersects with loss and doubt. But far too often, Bobbi Jene veers dangerously close to a feature length melodrama overly insistent on uplift, rather than on the continual poignancy Smith’s solo dance performances seem to evoke.